In 1987, I wrote the following entry on screenwriter, producer and director Arthur C. Pierce for The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (James Gunn, editor; Viking Books):
Pierce, Arthur C. (1923-1987) American screenwriter and occasional producer or director of science fiction films beginning with his first screenplay, The Cosmic Man (1958). Pierce’s films were often low on budget but high on enthusiasm, made out of his love for science and the science fiction genre. While he admits they may not be “earth-shakers,” his films still continue to play often on television and via videotape, in some cases building a loyal cult following. Pierce’s best films, Beyond the Time Barrier (1959), Mutiny in Outer Space (1964), and Destination Inner Space (1965) focus on conflicts between science and the military over a threat to mankind. Other common threads in Pierce’s films include a bantering dialogue between main characters, as in Women of the Prehistoric Planet (1965) and Dimension 5 (1966), and putting extraordinary beings into ordinary situations, with The Human Duplicators (1964) and Cyborg 2087 (1966). Pierce endeavored to explore concepts and ideas often beyond his limited budgets, but his imagination and enjoyment of his work shows through in his films.
What that paragraph doesn’t (and cannot) convey is the twelve years of friendship and collaboration that Arthur and I shared. And that now, more than seventeen years after his death, he remains a major influence on my life as ever.
As a life-long science fiction film enthusiast with experience behind the camera, I appreciate a lot of the movies made thirty or forty years ago, pictures which are now generally dismissed or laughed at. While they may appear crude by contemporary standards, they possess a charm that’s missing today. It’s as if the genre has recently become infected by a malevolent plague of cynicism that’s affected filmmakers, critics and fans. For me, the movies of the 1950’s and 60’s had (and have) the ability to fire my imagination in a way that today’s films do not. There were many times back then when I’d watch a film like Pierce’s The Prehistoric Planet
on TV on Saturday night, and by Sunday afternoon I’d be writing a script, building a spaceship set out in the garage, connecting lights to control panels and rigging up holiday sparklers to use for explosions. Never did I consider that the man who made the picture would one day become a close friend.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Arthur helped me to look at the stars with new eyes. I was fortunate to know the man who’s only hinted at in his low budget films. He was a person with a good heart, with hopes and dreams, and tremendously gifted. Between his richness of wisdom, vast imagination and gentle spirit, I wish others could have known him as well, because his films would never be looked at the same way again.
Arthur C. Pierce (left) chats with Richard Arlen and George Nader between takes of The Human Duplicators
Pierce had a full and adventurous life, and was a jack-of-all-trades in movies. In the early 60’s, he joined the staff of Fox effects chief L. B. Abbott, and worked on Cleopatra
(editing optical effects), Journey to the Center of the Earth
(as a lizard wrangler, pushing iguanas out of caves with a stick), and Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
(on a catwalk dropping “icebergs” onto the Seaview submarine miniature in a water tank). But Pierce is primarily known for the science fiction pictures he made, directing stars like Wendell Corey, Jayne Mansfield, George MacReady, Richard Arlen, John Agar, Mamie Van Doren, Glenn Langan, Michael Rennie, John Carradine, Richard Egan, Gary Merrill, Jeffrey Hunter, and Ferlin Husky. Without exception, they provided abundant escapism and inoffensive excitement — especially for Baby Boomers like me who used to stumble upon them on television in the wee hours. Their ‘science’ was quasi-believable, stories were well composed, and characters were usually engaging. Arthur was a great believer in humor, and made sure to add some comedy relief in almost all his films.
He actually began making movies in the U.S. Navy, as a combat cinematographer in the Pacific during World War II. (He earned a Purple Heart.) Some of his footage of attacks on U.S. ships became famous when they appeared in The Sands of Iwo Jima
. Pierce had also assisted the celebrated Captain Edward Steichen
in the preparation of Power in the Pacific
, a photo story book of the Pacific War.
After the war he traveled to Hollywood, where he co-developed and co-scripted The Silent Service
, about the World War II Submarine Service. It was set to star Robert Montgomery, but the film was never produced. In the late 40’s Pierce studied drama at Ben Bard’s Acting Studio, and worked in small theater productions. He’d do just about any job, from stage manager to actor, and kept busy as a freelance cameraman, prop man, or taking on whatever work might be available.
In 1948, he began a three-year stint with Raphael Wolff Productions, working as cameraman and director of commercial and industrial films. He spent a great deal of time traveling all over the United States, Canada and Mexico, filming every imaginable exterior sequence, including (in his words), “A canoe trip down rivers in a Canadian forest, in a helicopter over New Orleans, long horns in Oklahoma, on a ore boat on the Ohio ... steel mills, paper mills, water plants, auto plants, power stations, filling stations, log jams, power dams, baseball games, trains, and automatic brains.” He worked on over one hundred 16mm films for companies such as Ford, GE, IBM, and U.S. Steel.
Back in Hollywood in 1952, Pierce worked at the Howard Anderson Company, a leading effects house. He learned all phases of optical effects, assisted filming “Miniatures, titles, trick shots, and other effects in color, black and white, and 3-D on numerous TV and feature film productions” During a three-month leave-of-absence in 1954, Pierce formed a small company, Volcano Films, to co-produce, write and co-direct a twenty-minute color 3-D animation film, The Adventures of Sam Space
. This Puppetoon-style children’s film used eighteen puppets, each eight inches tall, which were animated via stop-motion photography. Unfortunately the 3-D fad of the 50’s vaporized and Sam Space
was never released.
By the mid-50’s, changes at the Anderson Company forced Pierce to seek employment elsewhere. His interest in screenwriting was given a major boost by his good friend and mentor Mark Hanna. Known for his screenplays of cult films by Roger Corman (Not of This Earth
), Bert I. Gordon (The Amazing Colossal Man
), and Nathan Juran (Attack of the 50ft. Woman
), Hanna encouraged and taught Pierce a great deal, and had him collaborate on scripts, a debt Arthur acknowledged with gratitude.
He eventually made his first script sale with The Cosmic Man
, produced in 1958. From this low-budget picture (reminiscent of The Day the Earth Stood Still
) starring John Carradine, Pierce would continue for the next twenty-four years, writing, producing, and directing a dozen feature films and several television series, including Fantasy Island
and The Next Step Beyond
Dolores Faith and William Leslie receive direction from Arthur while filming Mutiny in Outer Space
During the 1960’s and 70’s, before we had VCRs, I’d be glued to the television every time one of Arthur’s pictures was on. Sometimes I’d record them on audio cassette and listen to them later to absorb their stories and ideas. By the mid-70’s I wrote him a fan letter to say how much his work meant to me. He wrote back, and was deeply touched that I took the effort to track him down through a producer he had worked with several years earlier. He turned out to be a loyal, generous man with a big heart, and even named a character after me in his Fantasy Island
script, “Save Sherlock Holmes”!
In 1980, I suggested to Arthur that we work together. We saw eye-to-eye so much already, that we began collaborating on story ideas, scripts and film projects almost immediately. I worked with him until his death in 1987, and among our projects were sequels to two of his earlier films, a few paranormal stories, and one juvenile space adventure. As I was just starting out as a screenwriter, I asked him, “Do you have a rule or philosophy for making films or writing screenplays?” He replied, “I always write, and if I can, direct for what I would like to see on the screen. That may sound strange, but that’s how involved I get into it. If I’m not pleased with what I’m doing or my work, then I don’t think the general audience would be pleased.” Now as then, I felt it was a good philosophy for any creative spirit. We worked together until the summer of 1987, our last screenplay combining our love of science fiction and the metaphysical. His portions of the story and script were dictated on audio cassette, since he was having difficulties with his old IBM typewriter. It would be his very last contribution to the movies.
He was at that typewriter day and night working on projects when he wasn’t pounding the pavement working on script deals. Arthur was married to filmmaking, and he constantly labored to survive. He urged me to escape the Hollywood meat-grinder, which took advantage of his innate kindness and gentle spirit. He’d been cast out of it by the end, broken in a thousand pieces. He told me, “Get away from this business, and go find yourself a sweet lady and get married. Don’t end up like me!” I’m very grateful for that advice, and was blessed to have found Sharon, my wife.
As is the case with so many people who were involved in ‘B’ pictures, Arthur was generally ignored or unfairly disdained. He never received the attention I believed he deserved and, when we met, I began thinking of ways to tell his story. I tried selling and even giving away articles, but the editors of high-profile genre film magazines either insulted Arthur and his work, or imposed conditions that neither of us could accept. To this day when his work is mentioned in articles or reviews by fans or scholars, it’s nearly always in the form of slurs and insults. (It doesn’t help matters that two of his films were denigrated on the infantile television series, Mystery Science Theatre 3000
.) Most of my extensive interview sessions with Arthur were eventually published in the fanzine, Magick Theatre
(edited and published in 1987 by the webmaster here at Flickhead), and Arthur and his family were pleased.
If he were a writer of “nonsensical” scripts and an “inept” director as so many of his detractors insist, why did veteran producers continually seek Arthur out for his talent and counsel? And why is it — as many now claim — that James “King of the World” Cameron would find his true inspiration for The Terminator
in a little 1966 film written by Arthur C. Pierce titled Cyborg 2087
When seen today, we often forget that Arthur’s films are products of another time and, in all fairness, need to be viewed in that context. They were made quickly and inexpensively, without the gloss of Irwin Allen’s productions, but, by the same token, not as ineffectual as Ed Wood’s. In their day they were considered good, entertaining ‘programmers.’ As economic and inelegant as they often were, at their core was a kind, gentle, sincere, enthusiastic, imaginative, humble man who harbored ill will toward no one and who loved to tell his delightful tales of fantasy and adventure. Arthur was neither a mercenary nor a cynic out for riches or fame. He had a heart of gold, and was a funny, cranky, brilliant yet childlike man with an imagination as vast as all outdoors.
Friend, mentor, brother and guide, Arthur shared his thoughts with me in ways that I daresay he did with few other people. In September, 1987, he told me during a phone conversation that his mother’s health was deteriorating, and asked that I give him space and time to deal with it. He said that he’d contact me once things had “settled down” a bit. In reality, his mother wasn’t the one who was ill. The earthly life of Arthur C. Pierce ended on November 17, 1987, at the Parkland Memorial Hospital, in Dallas, Texas. In the last letter he wrote to me, Arthur said, “I dream of a brighter day when the white light will again glow.” On that day Arthur returned to the Light... His was an extraordinary spirit.
Dedicated to the memory of
my friend and mentor, Arthur C. Pierce
Copyright © 2004 by Kevin R. Danzey